"What are you reading?"
The voice on the other end of the phone took me back to the 1980s, sitting in my bedroom with giant stereo headphones on, listening to the radio station KKYK. It was Craig O'Neill, the legendary DJ and now television anchor for Little Rock's KTHV. He had called to discuss a program he was filming, but the conversation moved to other topics, including the writing world.
I think it natural that people often ask teachers about their personal libraries. As well, I've written a few columns about the books that impact me one way or another. I'm always glad someone asked.
"I'm reading 'A Noble Calling' by Rhona Weaver. She's a Little Rock author and I get to moderate her session at the Six Bridges Book Festival. The book is really good."
I could almost hear Craig nodding on the other end of the phone. "What about you?" I asked. "You into anything interesting?"
Craig's voice slipped into his familiar DJ baritone. "You're going to laugh at this, but I read an article six or seven years ago listing the world's top 100 books. I decided to read that list. All of them." He laughed. "I'm on number 36. Want to guess what number 36 is?"
"Something by Hemingway," I responded. Seemed like a safe answer.
"I wish. It's 'Atlas Shrugged'."
"Atlas Shrugged," the famous work by Ayn Rand illustrating a dystopian America, stretches 1,200 pages.
"You might take a few years just to finish that one. Surely 'Old Man and the Sea' is somewhere in there to balance things out."
He laughed. "Tell me about 'A Noble Calling'."
Visiting the Six Bridges Book Festival provides the opportunity to find some really excellent books that might not receive the "Today" show or Oprah Book Club treatment. The festival is one of my favorite events of the year. It gives central Arkansas some literary credibility as it brings in high-profile authors alongside poets, researchers, and brand-new writers.
This year's festival features a wide array of local talent including Professor Kelly Jones and her work on Arkansas slavery; Rev. Christoph Keller and his collection of enlightening and formative essays derived from funeral homilies; and UALR Professor David R. Montague who will speak on his work "Overnight Code," the story of how his mother rose above segregated Little Rock to achieve her dreams. Then there's great fiction including Little Rock's outstanding Kevin Brockmeier, and newcomer Ayana Gray, who wrote "Beasts of Prey," which Netflix is now adapting into a full-length film. A lot more local talent will be on display as well.
Also on hand will be some heavyweights such as Jacqueline Woodson ("Brown Girl Dreaming"), Mary Roach ("Fuzz"), TJ Klune ("Under the Whispering Door") among many more. Ash Davidson's "Damnation Spring" has been on my to-read list so I'll be sure to catch her session.
Fortunate to have the opportunity to moderate a husband/wife team of authors Amber Edwards and Justin Scott of Connecticut alongside west Little Rock resident Rhona Weaver, I'll be settling into our session on Oct. 23 at 10 a.m. The Edwards/Scott novel, "Forty Days and Forty Nights," is about biblical rain that causes the Mississippi River to flood. During this natural disaster, a domestic terrorist plans to use the chaos to foment man-made disaster: civil war. Most of the action takes place in Arkansas. Published last week, I've barely had time to get into the action, but it's difficult to put down.
Weaver's "A Noble Calling" is her debut novel. After a career as a land appraiser, she settled into writing and took the time to produce a great book, intended to be the first in a series.
"A Noble Calling" is about FBI agent Win Tyler, who serves the Yellowstone area. Like the Edwards/Scott book, a domestic terrorist group comes unhinged and sets about a diabolical plan to thrust the United States into chaos. The characters are entrancing, and Weaver describes scenery like a poet, slipping the reader into the comfort of a Yellowstone cabin where one can almost feel the heat from nearby hot springs or hear the pound of bison footfalls.
Like any great writer, Weaver makes sure the story ebbs and flows through its beautiful environment with a combination of deep dialogue and heady action. I found myself fighting the urge to flip ahead a few pages to see how the story plays out.
Writing a book is no easy task. The road to success is potholed with temptation: the temptation to take the easy route with characters, to repeat well-worn storylines, to give up when the line of publishers doesn't materialize. The authors featured at the Six Bridges Book Festival fought through temptation and produced some outstanding work to put on display for the Little Rock literary world. For the second time, organizers Brad Mooy and Amy Bradley-Hole persevered through pandemic to bring great books to Arkansas.
This year's Six Bridges Book Festival takes place Oct. 21-31 and is mostly virtual. Check the Central Arkansas Library's website at cals.org/six-bridges-book-festival for dates and times.
Maybe Craig O'Neill will find his own Top 100 book. I started to mention this to him, but then I remembered that he'll be part of the festivities himself. He'll be reading "Three Billy Goats Gruff" for an audience of children on Oct. 23.
That's a far cry from "Atlas Shrugged." And that variety is the beauty of the Six Bridges Book Festival.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.